Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Three ways to get HDTV programming - Satellite


MPEG-4 compression technology will bring more national HD networks and hundreds of local HD stations to satellite subscribers throughout 2006 and 2007; set-top boxes with HD DVRs available.
Must buy or lease relatively expensive set-top box; existing subscribers might have to upgrade their STBs to receive MPEG-4 transmissions; still need awkward over-the-air antennas to get some local channels, such as PBS HD channels.
With MPEG-4 compression making local HD stations a reality, satellite might be the best way to get the most HD programming.

Big changes are in store as satellite providers move to MPEG-4.
For the past few years, HD via satellite has been a promising yet frustrating way to get high-definition shows. By subscribing to DirecTV or Dish Network, viewers living in the most far-flung areas of the continental United States--and those who'd rather not pay for cable--can get their fair share of HD, including satellite-only offerings such as the NFL Sunday Ticket on DirecTV. However, because bandwidth is at a premium and because each satellite must broadcast the literally hundreds of local channels separately, DirecTV and Dish Network initially stumbled when it came to offering local HD stations--that is, the major network affiliates of NBC, CBS, Fox, and so on, that carry your local news and local car commercials.

Until recently, the only way to get high-definition local channels through your satellite receiver was with an over-the-air antenna add-on. To help compensate, satellite providers have offered a handful of national HD channels, such as the East and West Coast feeds of NBC, ABC, Fox, and CBS, but they don't have local news and ads, and they're legally available only in certain metropolitan areas and in rural areas that fall outside the broadcast range of terrestrial digital TV transmitters.

Satellite HD: A sea change

All of that has changed with the arrival of MPEG-4 AVC, a video compression technology that crams more than twice as much HD video into the same amount of bandwidth as the current MPEG-2 technology. Combine that with the deployment of new satellites (DirecTV launched the first of four new satellites in April 2005, with two more slated to launch in 2007, while Dish Network acquired another satellite from the defunct Voom service and launched another satellite in February 2006). Suddenly there's much more bandwidth in the skies.

The arrival of MPEG-4 means big changes for the amount of local HD programming we'll be seeing from DirecTV and Dish Network, and by the end of the year most areas should be reaping the benefits. DirecTV is promising to offer local HD programming for 67 markets by the end of 2006. They claim that would cover 74 percent of U.S. TV households. Meanwhile, Dish Network is also continuing to launch more local HD programming, and they promise they'll reach over 50 percent of TV households in the U.S. by the end of 2006.

One important issue to keep in mind, however, is that both DirecTV and Dish Network don't cover all the local channels. Dish Network offers the top four networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC), and DirecTV offers the top four networks plus The CW (but only in some markets). That means if you want to watch, say, Nova on PBS, you'll still have to use the over-the-air antenna add-on to do so. Sports fans weighing satellite versus cable should note: The high-def version of local sports channels are almost never available via satellite. That has a lot to do with the fact that cable companies often own the channels themselves, but at least for now it's still an issue.

With big changes like MPEG-4 come big sacrifices. Older DirecTV and Dish Network dishes and set-top boxes aren't compatible with MPEG-4 services. DirecTV and Dish Network plan to broadcast the existing MPEG-2 HD lineup; for the time being, however, you'll need to replace your current satellite equipment to watch the new local and national HD channels. Luckily, both satellite carriers offer discounts to existing HD customers to make the transition less painful.


DirecTV H20 HD receiver
DirecTV H20 HD receiver
DirecTV: To get DirecTV's MPEG-4 channels, you'll need the new H20 HD receiver and a dish that can receive signals from five different orbital positions. Currently, both new and existing customers will be able to get the H20 for $99.

DirecTV also just rolled out their new MPEG-4 capable DVR, the HR20--and we've got a full review if you're interested. The product boasts dual HD tuners and an excellent interface--despite losing TiVo support. The HR20 is currently available for $199 (after a rebate) for new customers and $299 for existing customers.

Dish Network: For Dish Network MPEG-4 HD service, you'll need an MPEG-4-compatible satellite dish and a receiver or DVR. New customers can get the ViP 211 receiver, a dish, and professional installation. They will pay a one-time lease upgrade fee of $49, while existing customers with the old 811 receiver can upgrade to the ViP 211 for $98 (including a new dish and installation).

Dish Network ViP622 HD DVR
Dish Network ViP622 HD DVR
Dish Network's HD DVR, the ViP 622 (full review), has similar features to DirecTV's receiver and adds multiroom features that let you watch different shows on two TVs at the same time. The first ViP 622 you buy while cost you $199, while additional units are available for a more pricey $499--although rebates can bring the price down. In terms of features and capabilities, the ViP622 is essentially identical to the old DVR-942 except that it can handle MPEG-4 and has a slightly higher capacity.

Note: Pricing and other info were current as of this article's publication date; call DirecTV or Dish Network for the latest information. Both providers also offer options to lease rather than buy the boxes.


Both DirecTV and Dish Network offer special HDTV programming packages. DirecTV's $10-per-month deal, available in addition to standard-def packages, includes seven channels: TNT, ESPN HD, ESPN2 HD, Discovery HD Theater, HDNet, HDNet Movies, and Universal HD. An 8th regular HD channel called "The 101" occasionally airs exclusive DirecTV programming such as a show about MySpace, but mostly airs CD USA, a music channel. Customers who subscribe to a DirecTV standard-def package that includes local channels will receive HD locals via satellite at no extra charge. Showtime HD and HBO HD are available to subscribers who sign up for the standard-def versions.

Voom's HD channels are now available on Dish Network.
Voom's HD channels are now available on Dish Network.
For MPEG-4 customers, Dish Network has 4 HD packages starting at $50/month. Local channels via satellite, including HD locals, cost an extra $5 per month. Each of the four packages offers the same 7 main channels as the DirecTV package, as well as 22 additional national high-def channels, far surpassing DirecTV's current HD offering. The extra channels available in all packages include National Geographic HD, Food Network HD, HGTV HD, The NFL Network HD, A&E HD (as of February '07) as well as 15 from the now-defunct Voom HD broadcaster. Among the Voom channels are Animania HD (animation), GamePlay HD (video games) Gallery HD (wall-to-wall works of art), HD News, Worldsport HD (soccer, Canadian football, etc), Rush HD (extreme sports), Monsters HD (B-grade horror and sci-fi movies), and Kung Fu HD (martial arts movies). The differences between the four Dish HD packages come down to the number of standard-def channels available, although the top package ($100 per month) does include HBO and Showtime HD in addition to Starz HD--another channel currently unavailable on DirecTV.

DirectTV and Dish Network subscribers also have their choice of pay-per-view HD movies and events ($5 per movie for DirecTV, $6 per movie for Dish Network), while subscribers to DirecTV's NFL Sunday Ticket will get about 110 games a season in HD.

Current satellite HDTV choices

DirecTV H20 (MPEG-4 HD tuner/receiver), $99 for both new and existing HD customers.

DirecTV Plus HD DVR (HDTV DVR, MPEG-4 compatible), $199 after rebate for new customers, $299 for existing customers.

These prices were current as of press time. Rebates and promotions change frequently, so check DirecTV for the latest offers.
DirecTV HD Package ($10 per month, in addition to your programming package):
  • Discovery HD Theater
  • ESPN2 HD
  • HDNet
  • HDNet Movies
  • TNT HD
  • Universal HD
  • The 101

Also available:
  • High-definition PPV ($4.99 each)
  • HBO HDTV (for HBO subscribers)
  • NBA TV HD (for subscribers)
  • NHL Center Ice HD (for subscribers)
  • Select Fox Sports Network games
  • Select NFL Sunday Ticket games (for subscribers)
  • Showtime HDTV (for Showtime subscribers)
Dish ViP 211 (HD tuner/receiver), first two units are free to new customers; additional units are $249, but customers can receive a $10 credit each month for ten months if they sign up for HD programming.

Dish ViP 622 (HDTV DVR), first unit is $199; additional units have a list price of $499, but customers can receive a $20 credit each month for ten months if they sign up for HD programming.

Both units also require a $49 activation fee, which is waived with an 18 month commitment.

These prices were current as of press time. Rebates and promotions change frequently, so check Dish Network for the latest offers.
Dish HD Bronze, Silver and Gold (MPEG-4 only; starting at $49 per month):
  • A&E HD
  • ESPN2 HD
  • Discovery HD Theater
  • HDNet
  • HDNet Movies
  • TNT HD
  • Universal HD
  • National Geographic Channel HD
  • Food Network HD
  • NFL Network HD

Voom HD channels:
  • Animania HD
  • Equator HD
  • Family Room HD
  • Film Fest HD
  • Gallery HD
  • Gameplay HD
  • HD News
  • Kung Fu HD
  • Monsters HD
  • Rave HD
  • Rush HD
  • Treasure HD
  • Ultra HD
  • World Cinema HD
  • WorldSport HD

Dish HD Platinum ($99 per month):
  • HBO HD
  • Showtime HD
  • Starz HD

Also available:
  • Dish Network Pay-per-view in HD ($5.99 each)
  • HBO HDTV (for HBO subscribers)
  • Showtime HDTV (for Showtime subscribers)


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